Katherine Jane Chase, the daughter of
Ohio politician, Salmon P. Chase was the envy of the Washington
social set during the war years and beyond.
By the time Kate was born on August
13, 1840, her father had already lost one wife and child. He was to
lose two more children and Kate’s mother before the end of 1845.
Chase’s third wife also died but not before giving Kate a sister, Nettie.
He would never marry again.
Being widowed and heavily involved
in Ohio politics, Salmon Chase would groom Kate to become his
hostess and social secretary, sending her to Miss Haines School in
New York City to prepare her for society. While there, she was
exposed to the finer things in life to which she became accustomed.
Her father’s expectations for her led him to become, it would seem,
overcritical, filling his letters with advice and correcting her
grammar whenever possible. Salmon Chase strove to be first and
wanted the same for his daughter. One senses little warmth between father and
daughter, although she idolized him. Their
relationship was a symbiotic one: as time went on, Kate would help her
politically and he would never marry, with the expectation that
Salmon Chase would become President and Kate would be his First
Kate returned to Columbus in 1855
as her father was running for Governor of Ohio. With his election,
she became his First Lady and secretary. At age 16 she was already
turning heads and was known as the “Belle of Columbus”. Salmon Chase
campaigned for, and lost, the Republican presidential nomination in
1860, after which he became Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary. While
disappointed at the loss, Kate learned valuable political lessons,
among them the need to be proactive and the importance of strategy.
The Chase family moved to
Washington and Kate soon became the premier hostess in the Capitol
just as she had in Columbus. Kate and Mary Lincoln “competed” for
the position until the Lincoln’s lost their son and Mary went into
mourning. All of Kate’s social events, everyone who was invited, the
details down to the seating arrangements, were designed to further
her father’s career. Salmon had set his sights on the Presidency and
Kate coveted the office as much as he did.
Her many admirers included Carl
Schurz, John Hay and James Garfield; however, the man who won her
heart was William Sprague IV, boy Governor of Rhode Island and heir
to a textile empire. They first met in Cleveland, Ohio at the
dedication ceremony of the Oliver Hazard Perry Monument. Their
wedding on November 12, 1863 was the wedding of the decade, although
it was soon realized that the marriage would be a rocky one.
Measured by the standards of the day, it would seem she had
everything. She was attractive, intelligent and had married into a
wealthy family. Unfortunately, she would experience much
unhappiness. She was exacting and soon found that her husband, far
from a perfect man, fell short of her ideal. She spent much of her
married life in Washington helping her father politically while
Sprague ran the family business in Rhode Island, travelling to
Washington when Congress was in session as he had been elected to
the U. S. Senate.
The one man that did measure up to
her standards and shared her burning ambition, her father, would
never achieve his ultimate goal. Chase was hopeful of a presidential
bid in 1864, but Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, much to Kate’s chagrin.
The birth of Kate’s son, Willie,
was a national event. Three daughters were to follow. Kate and her
husband lived separate lives, she dividing her time between their
mansion in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Washington and Europe.
With Lincoln’s death, Andrew
entered the White House, allowing Kate to maintain her position as
the most sought after hostess in Washington. In 1868, Salmon Chase again
pursued the presidency. Kate was his campaign manager and held a
level of political power unprecedented for a woman up to that time.
Grant won the nomination, and Kate never forgave those on Chase’s
staff whom she felt betrayed him.
During this time, Kate's marriage
to William declined further due, in part, to her absences from home
and her husband’s drinking and unfaithfulness; she would not take
her father’s advice to be more submissive. Salmon Chase died in 1873
depriving Kate of the one man she admired. Following the Panic of
1873, the Sprague financial empire collapsed amidst accusations of
treasonous business relations with the Confederacy during the war.
Kate entered into a relationship
with Roscoe Conkling, the powerful New York senator, which lasted
for many years. He was her intellectual and political equal.
Conkling sought her counsel and she actively campaigned to further
his considerable political influence. She became a Stalwart and
friend of Chester Arthur, remaining active in Washington politics.
Financial ruin, the social scandal
of her affair with Conkling and a well-publicized, acrimonious
divorce from Sprague would damage her reputation and emotionally
traumatize her family. Paradoxically, it was only after she had lost
many things that were once dear to her, did she find a measure of
peace within herself.
Her last days were spent living in
her father’s crumbling house, taking care of her mentally challenged
daughter and eking out a living selling vegetables from her garden.
It was said that as she drove her one-horse wagon with her soiled
white gloves through the streets of Washington delivering produce,
she held her head high and was kind to everyone she met.
Kate Chase died on July 31, 1899. As a woman of the nineteenth
century, her opportunities were limited, but she followed her own
agenda behind the scenes. Had Kate lived today, she would probably
have run for office, or had a professional career. No matter how one
interprets her historical legacy, Kate Chase was one of the most
influential women of her time.
American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague--Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal
By John Oller
Da Capo Press, October 2014, 416 pages
From the publisher: Had
People magazine been around during the Civil War and after, Kate
Chase would have made its “Most Beautiful” and “Most Intriguing”
lists every year.
Kate Chase, the charismatic
daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, enjoyed
unprecedented political power for a woman. As her widowed father’s
hostess, she set up a rival “court” against Mary Lincoln in hopes of
making her father president and herself his First Lady. To
facilitate that goal, she married one of the richest men in the
country, the handsome “boy governor” of Rhode Island, in the social
event of the Civil War. But when William Sprague turned out to be
less of a prince as a husband, she found comfort in the arms of a
powerful married senator. The ensuing scandal ended her virtual
royalty, leaving her a social outcast who died in poverty. Yet in
her final years she would find both greater authenticity and the
inner peace that had always eluded her.
Set against the seductive allure of
the Civil War and Gilded Age, Kate Chase Sprague’s dramatic story is
one of ambition and tragedy involving some of the most famous
personalities in American history. In this beautifully written and
meticulously researched biography, drawing on much unpublished
material, John Oller captures the tumultuous and passionate life of
a woman who was a century ahead of her time.
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